India-Bhutan ‘Mountain Echoes’ takes neighbours a step closer, enhances people-to-people ties (Review)

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Thimphu, Aug 25 (IANS) An Assamese band performing Bihu folk songs to a gathering of Bhutanese locals in a nightclub; Rajasthani delicacies including the popular Daal-Baati and three types of Churmas being relished by men and women dressed in the traditional Gho and Kira; tales arising from India’s northeastern states coming alive for students of the Himalayan country, along with a host of several other well-curated programmes at “Mountain Echoes” literary festival here brought India a step closer to Bhutan by enhancing people-to-people ties.

Diplomatic relations between countries find utterance in a multitude of ways, but at a time when joint naval and military exercises have become the norm for displaying solidarity between nations with friendly relations, the just-concluded lit fest has set a benchmark by directly engaging with the Bhutanese people and introducing them to the cultures, cuisines, literature and art from their neighbouring country.

It is also striking that while Bhutan has an almost unified culture and religion, diversity is the lifeblood of India’s democracy. This is clearly something that Bhutanese are not accustomed to seeing on a day-to-day basis.

But India’s diversity came alive at the three-day festival as various sessions explored themes that are quintessential to different parts of India.

For example, a session titled “Binodini: A Photographic Memoir” opened a window into erstwhile royal household of Manipur. L. Somi Roy, through the photographic memoir, enchanted the audience with nostalgic tales of a bygone era. The session featured Roy in conversation with Pramod Kumar K.G., exploring the recreation of history and imagination of kingdoms long lost.

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Similarly, Rajasthani delicacies held a place of pride during the festival as signature flavours from Jaipur’s famed street food destination, Masala Chowk, descended upon Thimphu.

The delicacies were served to guests at the welcome dinner as well as the dinner hosted by the Government of Rajasthan at Thimphu’s Taj Tashi. Apart from Daal, Baati and Churmas, the buffet also featured “Ultay tawe ke paranthe”, “laal maas”, melt-in-the-mouth “galoutis” and “gatte ki sabzi”.

Celebrated classical dancer and Padma Vibhushan recipient Sonal Mansingh reflected on the essence of the “Natyashastra”, considered as the foundational text of performing arts in India, in a session tited “The Inner Dance”.

Several similar sessions and off-the-schedule events brought India a step closer to the Bhutanese audience over the course of the festival.

The essence of the Indo-Bhutan relationship was highlighted on the opening day by Bhutan’s Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck when she said that long before diplomatic relations were the norm, the pristine waters from the lofty Himalayas of Bhutan nurtured the Great Plains in India while spiritual nourishment from India enriched the verdant valleys in Bhutan.

But Mountain Echoes was not just about India.

It featured as many as 51 sessions, and the Himalayan country’s rich cultural and religious heritage also came alive for the audience during the festival. In fact, the Bhutanese speakers (42) outnumbered their Indian counterparts (26).

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Sessions like “Songs of Milarepa” and “Translating the Sutras” threw light on little known aspects of Bhutanese culture and spiritual practices.

“Every year Mountain Echoes opens a window to Bhutan’s hidden cultural and religious traditions and offers a magnificent setting that stimulates calm reflection by thinkers from Bhutan, India and elsewhere,” India’s Ambassador to Bhutan Jaideep Sarkar told IANS in a text message.

Other well-attended sessions were themed around music, philosophy and environment. Keeping in mind the audience, who are primarily the young Bhutanese students, youth-centred sessions involving singer Usha Uthup were greeted with packed houses.

“I look forward to this festival every year. I am attending it for the third year and it gives me an opportunity to know more about India and also other countries. Last year (Australian writer) Markus Zusak had come here and I read ‘The Book Thief’ after listening to him. I also heard a lot about your former President (Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam) and was impressed by his body of work so I read a book of his essays,” Sonam Tenzin Wangchuk, Class IX monitor of Educating for Lifelong Citizenship High School, told IANS.

The young student asked a brave question to noted environmentalist Daniel C. Taylor and even differed with one particular assertion that Taylor made during his session on Environmental Justice.

This was not the scene just a few years ago. Bhutan’s Royal Queen Mother said that she has herself been witness to the transformation that the annual event is bringing to young Bhutanese.

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Notably, the ninth edition of the festival took place at a time when Indo-Bhutan friendship has become all the more crucial as the two nations navigate their paths together in the face of Chinese aggression.

The festival, organised by India-Bhutan Foundation (IBF) and Siyahi, a Jaipur-based literary consultancy agency, is a result of a landmark investment by the two countries.

The IBF was established in August 2003 during the visit of the present Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (then Crown Prince) to India with the aim of enhancing people-to-people exchanges in focus areas like education, culture and environment protection.

The Royal Government of Bhutan and the Government of India have contributed Rs 5 crore each as the main IBF corpus and the entire amount of Rs 10 crore has been kept in a fixed deposit in Bhutan.

The interest earned from the fixed deposit is used for financing proposals received from Bhutanese/ Indian citizens and NGOs on studies, research and similar activities. Mountain Echoes has enjoyed the support of IBF on similar lines.

The ninth edition of Mountain Echoes was held from August 23-25. The organisers said that over 17,000 people attended the festival, which is about three times the footfall festival saw the previous year.

(Saket Suman is in Thimphu at the invitation of the organisers of the Mountain Echoes literary festival. He can be contacted at [email protected])

–IANS

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